100 Things You Should Know About People: #75 — The More Difficult Something Is To Attain, The More People Like It

Picture of man climbing up a rock face
Photo by T. Voekler

You’ve heard about fraternities that have difficult initiation rituals to get in. The idea is that if an organization is hard to get into, then the people in it like it even more than if entry was not so difficult.

More difficult = more like — The first research on this initiation effect was done by Elliott Aronson at Stanford University in 1959. Aronson set up three initiation scenarios (severe, medium and mild, although the severe was not really that severe) and randomly assigned people to the conditions. He did indeed find that the more difficult the initiation, the more people liked the group.

Cognitive dissonance theory — Leon Festinger was the social psychologist who developed the idea of cognitive dissonance theory, and Aronson uses the theory to explain why people like groups that they had to endure hardship to join. People go through this painful experience only to find themselves part of a group that is not all that exciting or interesting. But that sets up a conflict (dissonance) in their thought process – if it’s boring and uninteresting, why did I submit myself to pain and hardship? In order to reduce the dissonance then, you therefore decide that the group is really important and worthwhile. Then it makes sense that you were willing to go through all of that pain.

Scarcity and exclusivity — In addition to the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain this phenomenon, I also think scarcity comes into play. If it’s difficult to join the group then not very many people can do it. I might not be able to make it in, then I would lose out. So if I went through a lot of pain it must be good.

What do you think? Do you find you like things better if they are difficult? Does this mean we should design products that are hard to use so that people will decide in the end it was worth it? (I hope not!)

And for those of you who like to read OLD research:

Aronson, Elliot, & Mills, J. (1959). The Effect of Severity of Initiation On Liking For A Group. U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Unit.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.